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Deckchair Theatre 1983-2012

The organisation was formed as the 'Deck Chair Theatre in Education Team' by Di Shaw and Brian Peddie in 1983. From the beginning there was an emphasis in employing actors and writers to co-write and perform original material.

It moved to premises in South Terrace in 1984, having become Deck Chair Theatre Inc., with a grant under the Community Employment Scheme to employ staff.

Theatresports was introduced in 1987 followed by a community project called Between Tears and Laughter, which examined the changing ways in which women regard childbearing and rearing. The project developed into Birthworks. One of the plays, by Lois Achimovich, was called Life Force. (Di Shaw, Deckchair founder, appeared in Achimovich's first play, Eugene and Carlotta, which was performed at The Playhouse in 1985.)

Phil Thomson became Artistic Director in 1988 after Di Shaw's resignation. In that year, a residence program called The Women There began in Perth high schools, including John Curtin HS. Also in 1988, Fleets of Fortune, a musical drama written by Phil Thomson & Ken Kelso, toured the state.

The move to the 'Old Customs House' in Phillimore Street was in 1989, the year the Theatre won the Swan Gold Theatre Award.

Deckchair's second home is shown above: the 'old' Customs House. The main groundfloor room was until recently used by the WA Circus School.

A notable production mounted here was Emma (1992), the play by Graham Pitts adapted from the book by Emma Ciccotosto.

Angela Chaplin replaced Phil Thomson as artistic director in 1990. New premises at 3 Pakenham Street were acquired in 1992. Emma returned in 1993 at the Hole in the Wall Theatre in Subiaco, and its cast with the choir called Le Gioie delle Donne (Joys of the Women) went to Canberra to be part of the National Festival of Australian Theatre. The choir was formed by Kavisha Mazzella, and included Emma Ciccotosta among its members. There is a documentary film called Joys of the Women, directed by Franco di Chiera (1993) about Kavisha and the choir.

Another new director was Richard Evans, who in 1993 replaced Linda Martin. He had previously been CEO of Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, which is in residence in the Stateships building on what is supposed to be a park: Pioneer Park.

The company was always in financial difficulties, often asking for support from government and the community. The Sail and Anchor (Freemasons) Hotel, for example, made donations in 1993. But at the end of 1994 the company was briefly in the black.

Also in 1994 the company used former Mills and Wares factory in South Terrace, for Factory Girl, a play about staff working in the factory - before the site was converted into apartments, as it is now. Carolyn Chard became general manager at the end of that year.

In 1995, Deck Chair performed Cappuccino Strip in South Terrace as part of the Fremantle Festival, includes acting workshops for the public. Also in that year, Robert van Mackelenberg received the award for outstanding male actor for his role in Diving for Pearls, in the Swan Gold Theatre Awards. The play is by Katherine Thomson.

The Theatre launched its 1996 season from the top of the Port Authority building.

vic hall

Deckchair's third and last home, Victoria Hall, High St (originally St John's parish hall). It moved here in 1998. Still short of funds, and under threat of losing Victoria Hall to refurbishment, it organised a fund-raising event by auctioning deck chairs decorated by artists. This raised more than $20k in the first year, and was held on several additional occasions. The Hall lost part of its roof in a storm in 1999.

In 1999, the theatre mounted Jimmy and Pat Meet the Queen, based on a book by Jimmy and Pat Lowe. As part of the promotion, Jimmy Pike completed a mural around the front of Victoria Hall as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

in 2001, the City of Fremantle bought Victoria Hall promising to keep the hall for community use.

In 2002, Deck Chair Theatre won two accolades at the State Arts Sponsorship awards, one for Mavis goes to Timor and the other for the Great Deck Chair Auctions. Mavis won an AWGIE award for best script in 2003.

In 2004, the Australia Council reduced funding to the organisation by $40,000 saying that the quality and quantity of the company’s work had declined. The company explained that taking over the summer season of Shakespeare in the Park had not been successful, but thought their past history of satisfying funding criteria with more than fifty world premieres was to its credit. They also considered that they should probably provide the Council with more detail on the work they do.

In 2007, Diane Jones was appointed to the chair of the board. Angela Chaplin and David Gerrard resigned in that year, and in 2008 the last artistic director was appointed: Chris Bendall. By 2010 he was the only employee.

In 2011, the company won awards at the 2011 Perth Theatre Trust—Equity Guild Awards, one for best production for The Modern International Dead, and one to Chris Bendall for best director.

In 2012, the Department of the Arts announced that it would provide new seating, air conditioning, sound insulation and lighting and sound systems at a cost of $570,000. But the company closed down that year unable to sustain its existence due to lacking of funding and audience support. Federal MP Melissa Parke delivered a speech to mark the occasion.

Some productions mounted by Deckchair

Paddy by Phil Thomson and John Walker (1988)
Emma Celebrazione by Graham Pitts (1992), starring Rosemarie Lenzo
Diving for Pearls by Katherine Thomson (1995)
Mavis Goes to Timor by Katherine Thomson, Angela Chaplin and Kavisha Mazella (2002)
Love by Patricia Cornelius (2006)
Memmie le Blanc by Hilary Bell (2007)
The Modern International Dead by Damien Millar (2011)
The Magic Hour by Vanessa Bates (2012)
Grace adapted by Humphrey Bower (2010)
Taking Liberty by Ingle Knight (2012)
The Fremantle Candidate by Ingle Knight (2012)
The Danger Age
Barmaids by Katherine Thomson?

'Deckchair Theatre to close after 30 years'

Tim Douglas, The Australian, 10 October 2012

FREMANTLE'S Deckchair Theatre will close after its board ruled falling box office numbers, sponsorship and government support had rendered the 30-year-old company unviable.
The company officially ceased trading yesterday.
The company's board of directors, chaired by Dorothy Wardale, said the decision to wind up the award-winning Fremantle institution was "enormously difficult".
"The cultural and economic landscape has changed greatly since Deckchair's establishment 30 years ago, particularly post-GFC, making it difficult to maintain a sufficient level of income through box office and sponsorship," Wardale said.
"This, when combined with continuing restraints on funding levels across the three tiers of government, as well as rapidly changing audience behaviours unfortunately means the organisation's future has become unsustainable.''
Deckchair, one of only two companies solely dedicated to commissioning and showing new Australian work, has been operating with staff equating to 3.6 for the past 18 months.
The company, founded in 1983, has been funded by the Australian Council as an emerging key organisation since 2009, before which time it had been funded at a higher rate. Its current triennial funding ends this year.
The company this year staged The Magic Hour, with Ursula Yovich and The Fremantle Candidate [by Ingle Knight], and had been showing Random Acts of Kitchmas (A Stocking Thriller). Sketches of Freo, a work commissioned for later this year, has been cancelled.
Patrons who have booked tickets for the remainder of the 2012 season will be contacted by Deckchair staff this week.
Artistic director Chris Bendall said he while devastated, he was aware the company had done everything in its power to stay afloat.
"Of course we are all hugely disappointed by the situation, but I know that we have done everything within our limited resources to further consolidate Deckchair's proud history in producing outstanding contemporary Australian theatre,'' he said.
"It has been a privilege to lead Deckchair Theatre for the past four years along with my dedicated and loyal staff. I have been immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of Perth's finest actors, designers and technicians on new plays by leading playwrights from Western Australia and right around the country.''

References and Links

Most of the historical data above is courtesy of Pam Harris, History Librarian, Fremantle Library, to whom many thanks for the chronology which she prepared for the significance assessment in 2015. The material was extracted from the Fremantle History Centre's Miscellany Collection.

Bizzaca, Kris 2019, 'Exit stage right: looking at the Deckchair Theatre collection', Fremantle Studies, 10: 18-30. [presented Fremantle Studies Day 2015 - but still not yet published]

Douglas, Tim 2012, 'Deckchair Theatre to close after 30 years', The Australian, 10 October.

DCT Ephemera in SLWA.

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